Yesterday I wrote about a brutal and visceral suspenseful film in Green Room. Today I’m going to write about another seriously suspenseful film, only this one is more so emotionally and intellectually. The Invitation is a fantastic little mystery that builds ever so slowly and ever so creepily. This is a movie that everyone can watch, even those who say they “hate scary movies.” Hear that naysayers? This is one for you! I really dug this movie. It just kind of gives you the creeps and makes you feel uneasy the entire time. You’re not sure what’s going on, then you’re sure what’s going on, then suddenly you’re not so sure again, and so on. It’s a fun little game. The premise circles around a man who receives a mysterious invitation by his ex-wife and her new husband to come to a dinner party. It’s a strange invite because it’s been years since they’ve seen each other, as they’ve become estranged after the death of their child when they were married. There is no exact explanation for what the invitation is truly for, or why now. The man travels there with his current girlfriend and they meet all their old friends that haven’t seen each other in a while. From here, you’ll just have to watch… Some people may call this movie slow, but I rather like the term deliberately paced. To me the slow build is all part of the fun. Think of it like a sexy striptease instead of just walking out naked. It’s an independent film and you can feel that there were no studio heads making them rush things or make decisions based on pacing. The acting is all on point, with once again, one of my favorite actors John Carroll Lynch stealing the show. Once he arrives, the movie becomes even more unnerving. The Invitation is quite simply just a smart, fantastic mystery that plays games with the audience until the very end (and I mean the VERY end.) If you’re in the mood for a creepy little twister, look no further.
Here’s another one of my true pleasures I saw last year. A film that kind of snuck out of nowhere and punched me in the gut. The Gift is one of those really smart films that takes you on a twisted journey right alongside the characters, and like them, you really don’t have any clue where it’s heading. There are so many twists and turns for both the characters AND the audience, that every second you’re just trying desperately to figure out what’s going to happen next. The fact that it usually surprises you is a real testament to this movie. The Gift (not to be confused by the Sam Raimi film of the same name from 2000) starts simple. A couple is innocently shopping in a store when a strange man named Gordo (love that name) approaches the husband and says he knew him from high school. After some coercing the man finally recognizes Gordo, who apparently has undergone some physical changes, they exchange pleasantries and leave. Well, little did the husband know that this chance meeting was going to disrupt his entire life as now Gordo becomes obsessed with the couple and simply will not leave them alone. This is when the “gifts” begin… To explain anything more from here will do the film a disservice, but just trust me on this one – it is a ride. The genius behind this is Joel Edgerton. He wrote, directed, and also stars as Gordo. This is his baby and holy hell I admire him for it. It’s so twisted yet so smart. There are some deep morality themes and mixed with some Hitchcock leanings that work so well for me. Plus, it’s fun to see Jason Bateman play against character. This is not Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman at all so be prepared. It’s just as much a mystery as it is a suspenseful thriller. There are definitely many clues placed in the film throughout so keep an eye out and you may put all the pieces together before the final reveal, but even if you do it doesn’t matter. It’s damn interesting getting there. This film deserves a ton of love because it’s intelligent, it gets you thinking, and most importantly it’s just a fun ride.
I’ve been focusing on a lot of current movies lately so I figured I’d go back to one of the true classics. And I mean classic. This House on Haunted Hill is one of my absolute favorite Vincent Price movies (to be fair, I have a lot of them). And while he was amazing in every movie he was in, there are some character moments in this one where he’s fighting with his wife (which he truly despises), that is pure Price magic. There’s a weird diabolical aspect to him, but at the same time, you kind of understand why he’s acting like he is. It’s kind of fantastic. The premise is one that almost sounds cliché now, but it still works. Five strangers are invited to a house that is supposedly haunted for a mysterious “party.” If they stay the night, they will each be awarded $10,000, which, remember this is 1959, that is a LOT of money. Vincent Price plays the extremely wealthy man hosting this party, supposedly at the request of his wife. But she seems to not be completely in on the idea, especially the choosing of the guests. Or is she? See, that’s most of the fun of this movie. You don’t really know anyone’s actual motives. Is it really Price setting this all up? Or is it like he says, at the request of his wife? Why were certain people chosen? Why did these certain people agree to come? Is the house really haunted? Or is it all hysteria, like the doctor says. It’s just so much 50’s fun. It’s very much styled after Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, in which it is really more of a mystery than a horror (by today’s standards at least.) But like I always say about watching older movies – you have to watch them in the mindset of the time period. In 1959 this movie was TERRIFYING. The tagline advertised 13 of the scariest terrors seen on screen. And what’s great is that some of them still make you jump today! It’s really full of amazing twisted nuances, from the guests arriving in the hearses (in case they have to be carried out in them), to the coffin “gifts” containing something else that ups the ante, down to the two severed heads that are supposedly “lost” in the house. Hmm, I wonder if they turn up… Anyway, it’s a William Castle masterpiece that is brisk (at 75 minutes), entertaining, twisty-turny, has a great ending, and mostly… Vincent. If you love older horror flicks, House on Haunted Hill is required viewing.
Yep, Saw. Deal with it. In honor of its 10th anniversary today, and thus it being rereleased in theaters, I had to put Saw on this list. I know a lot of people can’t stand this movie because of its uber-violence. Hell, it even helped usher in a legion of copycat “torture porn” films, which mostly all sucked. But to dismiss Saw is a complete mistake. There’s a reason why Saw spawned so many sequels. There’s a reason why every single Saw movie made a shitload of money each Halloween. There’s a reason why Saw stuck in our collective brains when so many other horror films came and went. Saw is a clever, unique, and twisted little movie. This was James Wan’s debut as a director, a horror genius I’ve already talked at length about because of The Conjuring, Dead Silence, and Insidious. Here with Saw, he comes out of the gate with a film that packs a serious punch, has a ridiculously intriguing hook, and some fantastic twists (not to mention a jaw-dropping ending). I had tickets to the premiere of this at Sundance back in January of 2004. What’s that you say? Sundance? Yep, shocker, ladies and gentleman, but Saw was a Sundance movie. You forget that before all the studio love, this was a small indie horror flick made on a tight budget. As most of you know, the fantastic hook of this movie is that the serial killer here doesn’t outwardly kill anyone, but rather forces them to take place in sadistic games that gives them a chance to survive if they solve the riddle correctly. Aptly named Jigsaw, this killer creates these punishing games with a moral sensibility. Each victim has made a bad life choice, and he’s trying to teach them a lesson. This is wonderfully exposed in the character of Amanda, the sole survivor of one of his “games”, and *SPOILER ALERT*, someone who plays a much larger role in the upcoming sequels. It has a fantastic opening of two men waking up in a room, chained to the pipes, and a dead body between them. Why are they there? Who is each man? Who is the dead man in the middle? Oh man, such a great way to open a film. And of course there’s the lines, “He doesn’t want us to saw through our chains. He wants us to saw through our legs.” Those lines in the ad campaign sent this film through the roof. Yes, it’s brutal. Yes, it’s hardcore. But yes, it’s also clever and worthy of all the love. On its 10th anniversary, if you haven’t seen it, finally bend, and give it a view. Just know you might be watching certain parts through your fingers.
Oh New Zealand. Please tell me you’re back in business with another batch of fantastic horror comedies. Back in the day, New Zealand gave lil’ adolescent me the gift of Peter Jackson and his amazingly disturbing films, Meet the Feebles, Bad Taste and Dead/Alive (or Brain Dead, depending on what part of the world you’re in.) Now, once again there’s another little, twisty-turny, macabre, horror comedy on the horizon with Housebound. Recently released, I saw this the other night on VOD and had an absolute blast with it. Housebound is about a woman arrested after a botched robbery and put on house arrest at her childhood home with her aloof mother and inept stepdad. While this is already her own version of a personal hell, it further gets complicated when her house may very well be haunted. From here, I’ll let the movie speak for itself because there are so many twists and turns, you honestly have no idea what’s going on, or what’s going to transpire next. That’s what I enjoyed the most about the movie. From one moment to the next, you honestly have no clue what’s really happening. It doesn’t feel contrived or cheap, it’s just a good old roller coaster ride that keeps you guessing. And it manages to balance some great scares with some really entertaining comedy all along the way. For me, a main reason why this film just works so well is the acting. The characters and cast are just pitch perfect. From the security man with a secret passion for the supernatural, to the mother who makes me laugh with almost every line or facial expression. But honestly it’s the main star Morgana O’Reilly’s movie. She is just fantastic and I could honestly watch her in anything. It’s a bit long, and probably could have lost a good 15-20 minutes in the editing room, but it’s still a jolly good time. It has one hell of a great 3rd act, and a diabolically fulfilling climax. Plus, any time you know there’s a movie that features an all out battle with an evil Teddy Ruxpin-like teddy bear, you know you’re in for a good ride. Enjoy.
Okay, watch out, it’s Jeff’s guilty pleasure time. Look, this is my list so I get to put what I want on it. I know that at its core Dead Silence is a pretty ridiculous movie. I know it’s been critically panned. I know there are logic gaps a mile wide. But guess what? I simply don’t care. There’s such a manic craziness to this movie that I kind of love. To me, it has the same vibe and feel of the types of horror movies I worship from the 80’s. The filmmakers decided to just go for it and simply have a lot of fun, which really rubs off on the viewer. Let’s be honest, no one likes ventriloquist dummies. Not a damn soul. They’re only a small step below clowns on the universally terrifying factor. On occasion these dummies get small parts in horror films (my personal favorite is the old Tales from the Crypt episode, “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy”), but here they take center stage. And you know what’s more terrifying that one ventriloquist dummy? How about a TON of ventriloquist dummies. Cause you just know that 3rd act is chock full of an entire wall of them. But in addition, let’s throw in deadly spirits, creepy old folk tales, scary old ladies, a “silent” mode that alerts you of evil, a few moments of gore, and even some neat underwater stuff, and you’ve got a hodgepodge of entertaining insanity. It’s worth noting the people behind this project. It was co-written by Leigh Whannell, who created Saw, so you just know there’s going to be some kind of “twist” involved (which is utter madness, but so stupidly awesome.) And it’s directed by the incredible James Wan, the masterful eye behind Insidious and The Conjuring (one of my favorite horror films of recent times.) So just know that even though this was an earlier work of his, it still has a lot of the atmospheric eye that gave those movies their luster. Look, like I said, this is a guilty pleasure, but I think if you’re just looking for an insane jolly good time, you really could do a lot worse. To me, Dead Silence is a blasty blast.
Here we are again in the realm of recommending a relatively recent hit horror film. It’s always a funny situation because once a film becomes a huge hit, its success usually overlooks the content itself. Well, with Insidious, I want to take it back to why this film became such a huge hit in the first place. Like many other films recently, Insidious was a film festival darling before it was released to audiences. I heard endless tales about screenings at the Toronto Film Festival where people were absolutely floored by it. So it already had a bit of a reputation and mystique before I had even gotten to see it. Once I saw it, I immediately understood why this film was going to be a huge hit. Another film directed by James Wan (The Conjuring, Saw), the man just seems to know exactly what scares audiences lately. The premise is about a family who’s son falls into a coma, and soon discovers that his coma is because of supernatural, not medical, reasons. Such a simple and effective hook (“It’s not the house that’s haunted… it’s your son.”) But additionally, this film worked because its main purpose is simply to scare the absolute bejesus out of you. No gore or gross out stuff. Just simple suspense and terror. Plus, when this film is the most effective for me is when you seem to see things in the broad daylight. The red demon behind Patrick Wilson gets me every time. Now, I will say, things get a bit… weird, in the 3rd act. And to be completely honest, they kind of lost me with the final reveal of the main demon since he’s a little too CGI for me. But I’m a forgiving soul. The rest of the film was really fantastic so I’ll let that slide. Overall, it captures a feeling of suspense and dread that most films simply can’t. It’s original, well acted, and really scary. Insidious: Chapter 2 just came out recently, but start here first. Sit back and enjoy.